Ethics in Research

Research in Psychology often involves experiments on people.  They might be university students who sign up for a study to gain some extra credit, or unemployed people looking for some spending money.  In the past, Psychologists have carried out studies that put people in stressful or even traumatizing situations.  In their pursuit of knowledge, some Psychologists were blind to the damage they were doing to innocent people.  As a result, there are now strict ethical guidelines to protect the rights and dignity of participants.  On this page, you'll learn about the key ethical issues in research, and how to ensure a study is ethical.
Video Activity

1.  Watch the video below, on the "10 Highly Unethical Medical Experiments"

2.  Four out of the ten are Psychology-related.  Can you identify them?

3.  Choose one of these four unethical Psychology experiments, and research it further
Codes of Ethics

In 1971 in Stanford, Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo created a simulated jail made up of volunteer participants, who were randomly assigned to the role of either prisoner or guard.  Zimbardo wanted to investigate how prison environments could lead to abuse of power and brutality.  After only a few days, Zimbardo's simulated jail became a living hell.  Guards physically and verbally abused prisoners, and any sign of prisoner disobedience meant hours spent in "solitary", locked away in a closet.  Some prisoners suffered emotional breakdowns, begging to be let out.  After the study was published, many were outraged at the abuse that was allowed to happen, and wondered whether the young men who participated in the experiment would ever be the same again.

In response to controversial experiments such as these, the American Psychological Association (APA) and British Psychological Society (BPS) published Codes of Ethics that set guidelines for the use of humans in research.  Nowadays, before any study is carried out, it much be approved by an Ethics Committee.  The task of the Committee is to carefully scrutinize the procedure of the study, assessing any potential harms or risks to participants.  The key principles of these Codes of Ethics are to "treat people with dignity", and to "avoid causing harm".  In other words, participants are not just a means to advance knowledge.  They are people too, and must be respected and protected from harm in all research.  To see the full ethical codes, click on the links below:

British Psychological Society - Code of Human Research Ethics

American Psychological Association - Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct

TOK Link

Zimbardo's research caused a great deal of psychological distress to many of the 24 participants, who experienced terrible abuse.  However, the Stanford Prison Experiment is still considered a classic of Social Psychology, as it powerfully demonstrated how evil situations can transform people's behavior.  It also increased awareness of the conditions faced by millions of real life prisoners, perhaps encouraging others to campaign for prison reforms.

If a research study has the potential to help millions of people, then is it okay to cause some mild harm to a small number of participants?  Or do the rights of participants always come first?  What ways of knowing can help you decide what is ethical when carrying out research?
Ethical GuidelinesP

Some of the key ethical guidelines are described below.  By following these ethical standards, Psychologists can ensure that their research upholds ethical standards and will be approved by the relevant ethical committee.

Informed Consent

What is it?  Informed consent means that participants have given their permission to take part in the study.  However, it is not enough just to get people to say "Yes".  Participants must be given information about the aim of the study, what is required of them, how long it will take, and any potential risks involved.

Why is it important?  Participants should not be coerced to take part in a study against their will.  They should be given full information about the study to help make an informed decision.

How to uphold this standard?  Typically, the researcher will give participants an informed consent form to sign, containing all the necessary information about the study.  They must also explain that participants can leave the study at any time, and that their information will be kept confidential.  Researchers must give participants time to read the consent form carefully, and ask any questions.  If participants are younger than 18, they must also receive consent from a parent.

Protection from Harm

What is it?  Participants must not be harmed in any way.  This includes physical harm, of course, but also includes mental and emotional harm, such as fear, embarrassment, or anxiety.  The risk of harm from participating in the study should be no greater than what is encountered in everyday life.

Why is it important?   No matter how important the research may be, it is important not to cause harm to innocent people.  

How to uphold this standard?  All of the possible risks associated with the study must be explained to participants before consent is obtained.  When dealing with potentially sensitive issues (such as bullying, sexual orientation, addiction, and so forth), researchers should have counselling available for participants who need it.  Furthermore, participants must know that they can leave the study at any time.

Right to Withdraw

What is it?  Participants have the right to leave the experiment at any time.  They also have the right to withdraw their data.

Why is it important?  Participants may begin feeling distressed or uncomfortable during an experiment, especially if it involves sensitive issues.  Under such circumstances, continuing in the experiment may result in emotional harm.  They may feel pressure to continue, so must be explicitly told that they are allowed to leave at any time.

How to uphold this standard?  When participants sign a consent form, the right to withdraw must be clearly explained.

Confidentiality and Anonymity

What is it?  Nobody outside the experiment should know the names of the participants, or know what results were obtained from each participant.  No names must be used in the research report.

Why is it important?  Participants have the right to privacy.  Some studies in Psychology involve highly personal, sensitive topics (such as mental disorders, addiction, relationships, and so forth).  Any breach of confidentiality could result in harmful consequences.

How to uphold this standard?  All data should be associated with a participant number or a pseudonym (a fake name), rather than participant's real name.  Data must be kept in a secure location (like a password-protected computer), and destroyed after a few years.  In some cases, confidentiality and anonymity may be difficult to ensure (like if participants already know each other, or take part in a study together), but this must be explained clearly to participants when obtaining informed consent.

Deception and Debriefing

What is it?  Deception involves lying or misleading participants in some way.  For instance, they may not be told the true aim of the study, or perhaps the people who they thought were just other participants were actually actors playing a role in the study.  Deception can be useful to avoid demand characteristics, whereby participants change their behavior once they know the aim of the study.  

Why is it important?  If participants do not know the aim of the study, or are misled in some other way, they may find themselves in an uncomfortable situation that they did not agree to participate in.

How to uphold this standard?  Generally speaking, deception should be avoided.  However, there are some circumstances where some deception may be justified.  The deception must be necessary for the study to be successful, it must be minor in nature, and it must not result in distress.  Furthermore, at the end of the study, participants must be given a debrief in which the true aim of the study (and any other withheld information) is revealed in full.  The use of deception remains controversial in Psychology.  Some researchers argue that it is a necessary tool for studying behavior, while others contend that it violates participants' rights, and leads to distrust of Psychology in the community.

Think Critically

We previously discussed the case of David Reimer, in which Dr. Money unsuccesfully tried to transform a castrated boy into a girl.  You can re-watch the video documentary on the case, or read this article to refresh your memory.

This case raises a number of serious ethical concerns.  Which of the ethical guidelines were followed, and which were violated?  Discuss the extent to which this case broke the ethical rules of modern day Psychological research.

See the bottom of this page for suggested answers
Quiz Yourself!

1.  According to ethical guidelines, participants must give informed consent.  What does the word "informed" refer to?

(a) Participants have signed a consent form

(b) Participants have been informed of their right to withdraw

(c) Participants are all over the age of 18

(d) Participants know the aim and methodology of the study

2.  The two general principles that underlie all ethical guidelines are:

(a) Treat people with dignity, and avoid harm

(b) Treat people with dignity, and maintain confidentiality

(c) Uphold the rights of participants, and obtain informed consent

(d) Obtain informed consent, and maintain confidentiality

3.  Before a research study is carried out, the researchers must:

(a) Conduct a pilot study to make sure the study is feasible

(b) Protect the confidentiality of all participants

(c) Keep the data stored in a secure location

(d) Receive approval from an ethics committee

4.  Some studies involve sensitive topics, such as drug addiction or sexual abuse.  In order to ensure the well-being of participants, researchers should do all of the following except:

(a) Never use participants under the age of 18

(b) Keep the identity of participants confidential

(c) Tell participants that they can leave the study at any time

(d) Have counselors available for participants 

5.  Snowball sampling is a sampling method that involves participants referring other people to take part in the study.  What ethical issue is raised by this sampling method?

(a) Protecting from harm

(b) Anonymity

(c) Informed consent

(d) Deception

6.  In some studies, the researchers do not reveal the purpose of the research, in order to avoid demand characteristics.  What ethical issue is raised by keeping the research aim from participants?

(a) Informed consent

(b) Confidentiality

(c) Right to withdraw

(d) Protection from harm

7.  If the participants feel uncomfortable during a study, they have the right to:

(a) Sue the researchers

(b) Demand greater compensation

(c) Withdraw their data

(d) Resume the study at a later date

8.  What three conditions are necessary for deception to be acceptable in a study?

(a) Informed consent, minor in nature, full debriefing

(b) Informed consent, minor in nature, right to withdraw

(c) Minor in nature, not result in distress, full debriefing

(d) Minor in nature, informed consent, full debriefing

Think Critically

Dr. Money did not obtain informed consent, either from David Reimer, who was too young to give consent, or his parents, who were not informed of the risks involved.  Dr. Money convinced David's parents that raising David as a girl was the only option, without informing them that such a thing had never been attempted before.

Furthermore, Dr. Money's actions caused a great deal of harm to David and his family.  David had to endure social isolation and gender confusion when he was unable to act like a typical girl.  David become extremely depressed, until he eventually found out the truth of his biological gender, and transitioned back to being a boy.  Eventually, both David and his twin brother committed suicide, likely due (at least in part) to the trauma of Dr. Money's case study.

Certainly, Dr. Money did not give David the option of leaving the study, and unduly pressured him to undergo surgery to give him a more female appearance.

Dr. Money did respect the confidentiality of David by using a pseudonym for David in his book, although David eventually came forward to tell his story.


1 - D, 2 - A, 3 - D, 4 - A, 5 - B, 6 - A, 7 - C, 8 - C